This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 8: the Pittsburgh Pirates.
2014 Record and Finish: 88–74 (.543), second place in NL Central (eighth overall)
2015 Projected Record and Finish: 88–74 (.543), second place in NL Central (eighth overall)
The Case For
The Pirates, who have won more games over the past two years than all but the Dodgers, Cardinals, Athletics and Tigers, are finally ready to break through. Boasting perhaps the best outfield defense in baseball thanks to the talented trio of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, Pittsburgh also has a lineup stocked with above-average bats at almost every position. The rotation has two legitimate No. 1 starters in Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano, and the pitching coach, Ray Searage, is one of baseball's best. On top of all of that, veteran skipper Clint Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington give the Pirates one of the best front office-coaching staff relationships in the majors. This roster, arguably the deepest and best the team has had in the last three years, could give Pittsburgh its first division title since the Bush administration—the George H.W. one.
The Case Against
The loss of catcher Russell Martin in free agency was a substantial one. Aside from ranking second on the team last year in OPS+ at 136, he was a universally praised defender and pitch framer, and he did wonders with the pitching staff. Replacement catchers Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart and Tony Sanchez won't come close to providing the production that Martin did. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who suddenly lost his ability to make routine throws last season and hit .231, will spend this year at first base in the hope that the reduced stress will help his offense return, but there’s no guarantee of that.
At the top of the lineup, Josh Harrison must prove that his 2014 was a breakout and not a fluke, while the Pirates will be getting a lot of empty at-bats from the Cervelli/Stewart/Sanchez trio and shortstop Jordy Mercer near the bottom. Mercer could be unseated by free-agent signing Jung-ho Kang, who obliterated Korea Baseball Organization with 40 homers and an 1.198 OPS last season, but he has looked lost in his first taste of baseball stateside, with three hits and 11 strikeouts in 27 spring training at-bats. The rotation also has issues at the back, particularly with fifth starter Charlie Morton, who underwent off-season hip surgery, and with A.J. Burnett, who excelled in his first tour with Pittsburgh back in 2012 and '13 but was mercilessly shelled in his lone year with the Phillies, posting a career-worst 81 ERA+ in 213 2/3 innings.
Pittsburgh doesn’t have much depth and will need 150 innings or 500 plate appearances from each of its projected starters. Last year’s Pirates lost an MLB-low 409 days to the disabled list (the average was 877, and the snake-bitten Rangers, who lost 95 games, missed 2,116), and the 2015 team will have to try to repeat that feat. That's especially true for the offense, which doesn't have much in the way of reinforcements either on the bench or in the minors.
Number to Know: 704
After quadrupling their use of infield shifts from 2012 to ’13, the Pirates nearly doubled it again, realigning their defense 704 times last year, sixth-most in baseball. It’s part of the reason why the coupling of their staff of ground-ball heavy pitchers and a solid but not exceptional infield defense has been so successful, converting 71% of balls in play into outs last year. That shifting already paid huge benefits for the likes of Vance Worley, who came to Pittsburgh after being torched for a 7.21 ERA in Minnesota in 2013 but dropped that to a sterling 2.85 in 110 2/3 innings for the Bucs thanks to his 49.4% ground-ball rate. It could do the same for Burnett, who has a career ground-ball rate of 50.4%.
Most Overrated: Pedro Alvarez, 1B
"He got the yips throwing to first base last year, so they’re hoping he can clear his head where he doesn’t have to throw and that he has a breakout with the bat. There’s still some issues with throwing but you can hide it over there. I hope he’s gonna be all right. I’ve watched the guy throw in spring training and he’s been O.K., but he’s not out of the woods. If they get into the postseason, it could cost them a playoff game. There are still some questions to answer. His throwing definitely affected his bat last year."
Most Underrated: Neil Walker, 2B
"I love this guy. He doesn't stand out tools-wise, but he gets big hits. He’s a solid everyday player on a first-division team. Most guys would want this guy in their lineup. He has a good feel for what pitchers are trying to do to him. He’s a coach’s dream. He doesn’t try to do too much at the plate. He’s a better hitter lefthanded, but he got better last year righthanded."